The True Joy of Reading

Why the true joy of reading lies in its superfluousness, why we shouldn’t give presents that entail slave work, why libraries are no longer allowed to accept book gifts, and how José Alberto Gutiérrez became a hero of our time.

Anyone who turns to the Internet, of all places, to find out why it makes sense to read books – real books with pages made of paper and letters printed on them – has no problem finding lots of good advice. He comes across items from personalities and continuing-education institutions that reveal to us “10 Reasons Why You Should Read,” or “9 Good Reasons to Read Books,” or even “The 7 Practical Advantages of Reading Good Books.”

I have some reservations about that last one. People who think reading good books is nothing but an advantage, and a practical one at that, might never have experienced the true joy of reading. They’re stuck in a mind-set where everything must have its usefulness, its advantageous usefulness, of course; that is, they’re stuck in a view of the world that is precisely what literature would like to disrupt by reminding us just how necessary the superfluous and presumably useless can be.

But I don’t want to malign others who urge people to read books for reasons other than my own. Especially with Christmas coming, we should remember two reasons in particular. First, books make excellent gifts: they don’t cost all that much and they’re portable. Second, when you enter a bookstore, you can browse around and find what you were missing without knowing it, and you’ll meet bookstore employees who will advise you on just the right thing for yourself, or as a present you’d like to give to a very special someone.

If you buy books, you’re also helping to ensure the existence of bookstores, those local suppliers of vital nourishment, which is an important thing for our civilization, and not just because it would be a sign of our civilization’s sad decline if we depended solely on Amazon for our book purchases. Who would want to show up at the home of people he values with a gift that’s been pulled off the shelf, packed, and delivered by poorly paid, constantly monitored wage slaves whose master, um, employer has based his worldwide empire on always finding new tricks for breaking labour laws with impunity and avoiding duly owed taxes?

Yes, who would want to do that? A lot of people, apparently, an unbelievable number. If you pay attention to the triumphal march of Amazon and other corporations of the digital era, you have to start doubting whether homo consumens is capable of feeling empathy or even practicing solidarity, for whenever his convenience or his financial advantage – be it ever so small – is at stake, it turns out that neither empathy nor solidarity is what it’s cracked up to be.

What goes on in Amazon warehouses is no secret, and neither is the way Airbnb has wreaked havoc on the housing market. We all know about this. But millions complain about the unbearable pressure they’re under at their jobs, or about the enormous sums they have to shell out for their houses or flats, and yet they order from Amazon every day and rent themselves an Airbnb when they’re on vacation.

Before I lose myself in a totally pointless lament, back to the books. They really are having a hard time these days. I recently met a professor of literature from Scandinavia at a literary conference, and because he had gotten my attention with his smart presentation, I asked him whether I should present his institute with a free subscription to the literary journal I edit. At this, that eloquent man, a man of books by profession and long-time passion, made an exasperated face and informed me of the progress that had been imposed on Swedish universities. For two years now, I learned, the humanities libraries have not been allowed to acquire any more books, because they have been ordered to digitize those already on hand and to purchase new ones only in digital form.

Thus, books are currently disappearing from students’ and researchers’ field of vision, since they’re being cleared out of reading rooms like they were evidence of some dark age – but in exchange they’re being digitally upgraded. If librarians used to complain about having too little money to order all the books they considered important, nowadays they have to resign themselves to no longer being allowed to accept books even as gifts.

If libraries are now treating books like dusty rubbish that’s best gotten rid of, I commend the dustman José Alberto Gutiérrez, who retrieves books from the rubbish and uses them to create his own libraries. Gutiérrez has no degree in literature, but he does have twenty years’ experience collecting rubbish for the Colombian capital Bogotá, a university of life that has taught him the value of a book.

Over the years, he has discovered around 50,000 books and rescued them from the refuse. At some point, he got the idea that books would be just the thing for the people in the poor districts. Since then, he’s started up around a hundred suburban libraries and furnished them with a small number of books for children and adults. His co-workers, who at first made fun of his passion, have long since come around to bringing back books to him from their rounds, so he can include them in the main library in his own little house or take them to one of its branch locations.

At Christmastime, I sometimes get asked what books I would recommend as gifts. Whether it’s a voluminous novel, a slender collection of delicate poems, or a well-researched book of nonfiction – it doesn’t matter. You can also make too much of what kind of book it should be. Like the two Russian book lovers from the city of Irbit in the Urals who got into a quarrel over which was more deserving of honour, prose or poetry. This question was so important to these two drunken men that their argument got more and more heated, until one of them pulled a knife. The advocate of prose ended up bleeding to death, while the admirer of poetry became a murderer.

But books are there so we can live better, not so we can learn to kill. I want to insist on that, and not only at Christmastime.

Translated by Geoffrey C. Howes